Monday, March 16, 2015

3 motives which drive the Saints

Q:  Hey Peter, I was wondering if you could make a book recommendation.  I was wondering if you knew a book about Saints or other people (any religion, non-religious, etc.) and their lives, beliefs and motivations.  I think they must be some of the most interesting people I have heard of.

A: I love the saints, and I am fascinated by them as well.  I suspect that my interest in them is similar to the interest that an aspiring athlete has to a great professional athlete who has excelled in their sport.  I take seriously the statement that “We are all called to be saints”, and hope to be one myself (though this has been my hope for 18 years now, and I certainly have not come close to that goal so far. I just have to trust in God’s mercy and grace and continue to hope!)

That said, most of the books I know about saints are biographies that share their inspiring stories, or maybe some theological treatises which outline their beliefs…  but I don’t know of very many books that delve into their inner workings and motivations!  The one book that comes to mind is “The fulfillment of all desire” by Ralph Martin, which is a book that I would highly recommend to any Catholic who wants to enter into the depths of prayer, but it is hardly a beginners book for someone who is not Catholic!

If people reading this blog have any recommendations, I would be happy to pass them on to the questioner!

Maybe someone should write a book.  Whenever I think that, I think “Maybe I should write a book”, but then that book idea has to fall into the cue of ideas behind the books I want to write on simplicity and on the rosary and stations and the novels I want to write.

But were I to write a book, I would likely tackle it something like this;

Outline the major motives and themes of the Saints, then throw some fascinating stories into the book that illustrate these points.  I think the major motives for the saints are union with God, love and humility.  Maybe also self improvement, but I actually think that is just a cynical observation of what saints are doing, and probably not the motive of real saints. Actually the book may need a whole section debunking the false motives that cynical people ascribe to the saints!

There seems to be a set of assumptions regarding motivations, which maybe go back to Freud’s idea that every action is motivated either by a desire for sex or for power.  The assumption that a lot of people have is that there must be a selfish motive for everything we do.  So why do people have children?  For a sense of fulfillment or joy or whatever- for some selfish reason.  The idea that there is any altruistic motive for doing anything is for many people a foreign concept. 

This question came to me on Facebook just as I was sitting down to watch “The Drop Box”, a movie about a pastor in South Korea who put a box in the wall of his church where girls and women who felt they had to abandon their babies could abandon them anonymously but the baby would still be cared for.   The pastor has taken in hundreds of babies, and passed them on to various organizations, but he and his wife are now raising 15 children themselves, many with serious handicaps.

Why would he do that?  Again cynical people seem to think the only answer has to be a selfish one- that he must be seeking attention or glory or be trying to ease his hurting conscience or something.   But I suspect that he’s doing it for love.

I have on occasion done things purely out of love. At those moments, I have sensed what it must be like to be a saint.  There is a sense of fulfillment and purpose and freedom in doing these things. However, no one would do it for that sense- at least not to the degree that the saints do it!

One day a man watching Mother Teresa as she cared for the sick and the poor said “You couldn’t pay me enough to do what you do.”  Mother Teresa looked at him and said “Me neither.”

What motivates Mother Teresa or Pastor Lee of Korea or Fr Damien who lived with the lepers in Hawaii?

None of the selfish explanations suffice for these people.  So there must be something else.

The Christian idea is that we were made originally to love.  (People even try to pin selfish motives on God, and ask “Why did God make us?” as if there must have been some sort of selfish motive. But he made us simply to love us!).  We were designed for love with each other and with our creator.  But we chose selfishness, sin, and chaos. And so now most of our desires are tainted by those things.  But Jesus’ death on the cross, the ultimate selfless act, was so that we could be restored to our original condition.   God does not just declare us holy, but rather he makes us holy, sanctifies us, which is a process which takes time and effort and cooperation with God’s grace.

Maximilian Kolbe said that sainthood is when your will is in perfect alignment with God’s will. You want precisely the thing that God wants.  You are motivated entirely by love, and not by selfishness. And the third point is of course that you do not want attention or glory, because you want humility, which underpins everything you do.  That’s why I say that even self improvement cannot be the real motive, since this turns into a form of narcissism.

I also think this illustrates an error that we make in Christianity when we evangelize-  we try to promote our religion by the joy and satisfaction and meaning we find in it, or by a longing for Heaven, or some people will even employ a fear of Hell. But we promote a philosophy that is fundamentally selfless by appealing to selfishness!  Jesus on the other hand invited people to take up his cross, to suffer, to serve, to give, to love, to die.  I suspect that even if someone does not agree with the Christian propositions, we all feel a certain resonance in the call to holiness.  This is precisely why Christianity is ‘good news’ and offers hope. 

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